Jermyn’s Whatsapp wake-up call stings personal pride and sparks Olympic return

It seemed merely a tongue in cheek gag at the time. Three games into the inaugural EY Hockey League season and three hat-tricks to his name Cork C of I tweet “he’s not retired yet”.

Today, the 34-year-old John Jermyn is in Rio de Janeiro as the most unlikely member of the Irish hockey squad as they begin their first Olympic campaign in 108-years.

To say he was off the radar is an understatement; when Ireland meet India on Saturday against India (3pm, Irish time; 10am Brazil time) it will be his first competitive tournament game since December 2012’s Champions Challenge I.

John Jermyn firing in a drag-flick against Korea earlier this summer. Pic: Adrian Boehm

John Jermyn firing in a drag-flick against Korea earlier this summer. Pic: Adrian Boehm

Back then, he stepped away from the Irish panel, partially for work, more partially because of his upcoming marriage, seemingly never to return. But the Cork man said that he was wary about making formal announcements.

“In the back of my mind, I never really ruled out a return! People did ask questions about it, I was never too committal either way.”

It meant one of the great Irish careers looked set to never have been appreciated by a wider audience. Jermyn had been through three Olympic cycles, two of them particularly rough, coming within inches of the promised land.

He came into the squad in 2002 with Irish hockey at one of its lowest ebbs, dropping to 23rd in the world with Athens scarcely in view after a ninth place finish at the European championships. Indeed, those years can probably be seen as year zero for Irish hockey and its recent rise to the fringes of the world’s top ten.

Crucially, David Passmore came on board first as national coach and subsequently as the new role of high-performance director, spotting huge opportunities for the sport to grow. On the world stage, despite its low profile, Ireland has a reasonably high number of active players and a healthy amount of clubs but lacked direction and commitment to elite principles in some sectors.

By 2008, Ireland were contenders with Jermyn a key midfield general. Painfully, they missed out on a direct playoff for Beijing on goal difference despite a memorable 1-0 win over New Zealand.

Dublin 2012 was the real stinger; in front of a President Michael D Higgins and the biggest crowd seen at Belfield, Ireland were seven seconds from a shoot-out in their qualification final against Korea, but a fortuitous touch in the circle from Nam-Yong Lee was sent to video review, condemning Ireland to a 3-2 defeat.

In the nine months that followed, Jermyn would break the goalscoring record before quietly stepping away with little ceremony. The fact his email address features the number 87, his record goals tally at the time, suggested a sort of finality and the next few seasons suggested a slow wind-down into normal 30-something life – job, wife, mortgage and children.

But the tingles for top hockey were piqued in C of I’s run to the Irish Senior Cup final in 2015 as his personal pride was stung.

“That was a turning point for me was we had a big win against Lisnagarvey in the quarter-final. After it, there were a few Whatsapp pictures of me looking pretty over-weight being sent around.

“This was a big wake-up call to get back in shape for the remaining Irish senior cup matches. Unfortunately, we lost the final but, by the end of the season, I was as fit as I’ve ever been.”

Indeed, club mates at Garryduff said it was like a switch, turning him into a fitness obsessive overnight. At this stage, getting a recall was still not really on his agenda. The onset of the EY Hockey League – the first full-season All-Ireland league – meant the fitness drive was still very much on. The Garryduff side were viewed as a contender for the lower reaches and Jermyn, the team’s talisman, needed to be in tip-top shape for the challenge.

Holding off the Netherlands' Billy Bakker in front of a large crowd in Cork. Pic: Adrian Boehm

Holding off the Netherlands’ Billy Bakker in front of a large crowd in Cork. Pic: Adrian Boehm

“We knew to compete we would have to get really fit and so I just continued to train at the level I had leading up to the senior cup final.”

Three hat tricks in three games followed and those tongue in cheek articles followed, suggesting he was ripe for an international recall around the time the Olympic ticket was formally stamped last October.

It was not something he pushed himself but Irish coach Craig Fulton was watching. Unlike some predecessors, he kept close tabs on the club game, also recalling the 30-something Gareth Watkins who had spent a similar length of time out of the loop. Both were offered places in the training panel at the turn of the year.

With his physical shape the way it was, he did not feel that step up to international training was too far beyond him. There were some awkward moments about rejoining the group, not least that some of his new contemporaries were just beyond toddlers when he made his debut.

He was also the only player to play no part of the wider squad that earned qualification in Antwerp at the World League semi-finals in July, nor the European Championships bronze medal winning side in London last August.

Bar some quips, however, he did not feel any Johnny-come-lately resentment from his fellow squad mates who might be displacing.

“The first sessions back were awkward! Bogger [the strength and conditioning coach Stephen Barry] asked for weight, height, and date of birth early on and there were quite a few sniggers when I said 1982! I’m looking at Jamie Carr who had just turned 19!”

There were enough familiar faces around the camp to ease him back into the fray; indeed, 11 of the panel have been near ever-presents since 2009.

“It could have been different in a way had there not been so many of the guys still around that I had played with previously but it really is a great bunch of lads.”

During the initial phases of his comeback, Jermyn kept his Sunday training trips to Dublin a secret from the office – he is a solicitor with Ronan, Daly, Jermyn – but word soon got around and there was active encouragement for him to throw himself into it and he was allowed to take time off from the start of May.

On the pitch, his return formally began in earnest in a trio of uncapped matches against Great Britain in early April. Goals followed in friendly ties against Korea and Germany, raising his total to 90 on the eve of the Games.

Jermyn signing autographs at the Mardyke. Pic: Adrian Boehm

Jermyn signing autographs at the Mardyke. Pic: Adrian Boehm

He was still viewed very much as an outsider to make the cut. Indeed, ahead of a reduction from 27 to 21 players, Jermyn joked that he was just hoping to extend his “out of office” email reply for as long as possible.

That auto-response is now set for late August and he is keen to make a big impact. His prowess at the penalty corners, where he is a drag-flick expert, is a crucial factor to his game.

Previously, he would have been the number one flicker but he is likely to share those duties with Shane O’Donoghue who also averages a goal every two games.

As such, it is Jermyn’s midfield movements – the one area of the Irish team are a bit lighter on experience – that has copper-fastened his place, a testament to his fitness work.

Now in situ in South America, he has had less anticipation time than any of his team mates who celebrated qualification last October but he is already itching to get on the Deodoro turf. And he is ambitious that Ireland can make an impact.

“We all can’t wait at this stage. It’s been a tough cycle having played 17 or 18 games against top opposition in the last two months.

“Some of the results haven’t gone our way but we have closed the gap. From the stats – I know some will think they are just stats, not results – we are right up there. Confidence is high due to the fact our coaching and management team have left nothing to chance in our preparation.”

Partners of The Hook